Jeffrey Bernard has been ailing for quite a while now. This touring version is the fourth or fifth revival since Peter O’Toole created the old reprobate role he was born to play 22 years ago, with Tom Conti, James Bolam and Dennis Waterman, among others, picking up the baton for later productions.
The peg this time is the first major airing since the death in 2009 of author Keith Waterhouse, a Fleet Street legend at least the equal of his comic hero, on whose journalistic scribblings the play is based. However, it is not a regular touring offering that comes up fresh for each generation, unlike such stalwarts as The Rocky Horror Show or Blood Brothers, and despite David Grindley’s firm-handed direction, and Robert Powell’s rumbustious and largely self-depreciating portrait of the bibulous raconteur, somehow it seems to belong to a distant, less pressurised age.
The hard-drinking and even-harder womanising Jeffrey has been supplanted by journalists devoted to their BlackBerries (non-alcoholic variety), their blogs and their twittering, all of which our Jeffrey would have hated. One of Powell’s successes is in showing that Bernard has already become an anachronism when he is trapped overnight in his favourite Soho pub, and experiences visitations from a variety of ex-wives, rival hacks, fellow gamblers and even HM Customs and Excise officials.
There are poignant moments amid the series of bar room jokes, and Powell is aided by his four-strong supporting cast in slotting them into his recollections of a decidedly Bohemian life.